We were sitting in the living room of the comfortable, airy house in Manila where Corazon Aquino's brother and sister-in-law live. We were a small group of journalists who had been invited there to have lunch with Mrs. Aquino, and were awaiting her arrival. It was a week before the election. Walkie-talkie messages started to beep in from the candidate about half an hour after we got to the house. The motorcade, as always, had been impeded by huge, clamoring crowds; its progress was maddeningly slow, and it might not get there for yet another half-hour.

The candidate, evidently a hostess to her bones, was principally worried that her luncheon guests might get hungry. The insistent message that kept coming from Mrs. Aquino was that the meal should start without her so the guests wouldn't have to wait. We waited.

When she finally arrived it was without any of the flash and hustle one associates with candidates who are in the midst of page-one elections. She didn't walk, talk or look that way. There was no fanfare and almost no entourage. The aides who were there -- some relatives, some not -- seemed very much at ease and direct with her; they were courteous enough, but far from overly deferential or protective as you come to expect aides in campaigns to be. And she herself, remarkably enough, seemed free of that preoccupation which politicians can usually only disguise up to a point -- the foot-tapping partial presence that bespeaks an enormous desire to be somewhere else just as soon as it is decent to leave and a determination, while mired in the current conversation, to think through a few pressing problems that have come up and which will need to be solved by the end of the day.

You cannot imagine Corazon Aquino suddenly interrupting a conversation to say, "Yes, yes, I'm listening . . . wait a minute . . . just a second . . . hey, Freddie . . . did you get the report that Joe was talking about . . . well, why not . . . we need it before we see the bishop . . . get if from them . . . now . . . " -- and then turning back to you with a fixed, empty smile and saying: "Yes, yes, where were we . . . you were asking about . . ." Inconceivable.

The woman who came into the house and with whom we were to spend the rest of the afternoon, first at lunch and then in her van while she campaigned, never lost this peculiar quality. She seemed to be exactly where she was at every moment, not someplace else. At one point, while we sat traffic-bound in the van, a bunch of small boys on the street rushed up to the open window by which she sat and stuck their hands through with pleas for campaign buttons. She produced some. She then said she didn't have any more of this particular kind, apparently the favorite.

But there weren't enough for all and so a lot of kid-shout ensued. Some of the boys protested that when her bus had been stopped in this same neighborhood yesterday and she had given out buttons, one of the same boys who had got one today had also got some and that this was not fair and so on. Much even, but intense, conversation between Mrs. Aquino and the boys. A few general precepts of fairness were enunciated. A reasonable and presumably acceptable result (at least the yelling stopped) was reached after considerable give and take. The van pulled away and she smiled and turned to other matters. She had been utterly concentrated on the conversation she was having with the boys, on what I came to think of as the out-of-buttons issue.

I don't draw any conclusions from this about Mrs. Aquino's views on distribution of the wealth. And I am intensely mindful of the fact that my impression of her is based on just a few hours' exposure. But I did find these two qualities to be a constant that day in everything she did: the unaffected and unassuming bearing -- one's mother would have said "ladylike," I fear -- and the extraordinary, unflappable and uninterruptable concentration on whatever business she had decided to take up. It amounted to a kind of "cool," -- polite, self-confident, self-possessed.

Our leaders and others around the world are going to have to get used to this and also to decide what to make of it. Partly Corazon Aquino seems eminently well brought-up patrician widow, partly a woman of iron determination and practicality. About a week after the election I spoke with her on the phone from the United States. It was at the height of the confusion. Marcos was hanging on. The crowds for Aquino were growing. Outside the Philippines, thought was being given to -- at most -- some kind of coalition, or slow withdrawal of Marcos, or makeshift ticket of Marcos plus Aquino's running mate, Salvador Laurel. The pressure on her to back off was tremendous. The thought that she would be inaugurated president was chimerical, antic, remote.

Except that she insisted. Her commitment to take the office she was certain she had won was not even slightly conditional. That was the given. She was very interested in doing a piece for us (this was the object of my telephone call), but she would be occupied now that they had killed Evelio Javier, meeting his widow, comforting her, helping with the memorial. Perhaps after that.

"The situation is getting very tense," my notes show she said. The crowds were large and angry, especially now that there had been this murder. "My security is worried," she said. That was because she was appearing and would continue to, as at the service, before the crowds. To keep the situation from turning violent, she believed that "people have to see me," and as she was not permitted to appear on Marcos-controlled television, that meant going out in public, security worries or not. She said: "I have great faith God will see us through, all of us." And, of her calls for peaceful conduct: "I would much rather be accused of being overcautious at this moment than of risking violence."

I couldn't tell you how this woman will organize and run a government, deal with the tough soldiers who crucially came to her aid or with the hardcore insurgency arming in the countryside or with the government of the United States. I can't tell you if she'll be any good. I can tell you she struck me in our brief encounter as a very tough and brave and estimable woman.